Collaborating to Create Learning: the TeachOntario Programme – Canadian Government Executive

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February 14, 2017

Collaborating to Create Learning: the TeachOntario Programme

"TeachOntario has become a centre for teachers to collaborate with colleagues and build a web of mentorship across the province." Karen Grose, Vice President of Digital Learning at TVO.

Bill Gates once said that “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” Most will agree: A teacher plays an integral role in laying the foundation of a child’s education. If the first steps are successful, there are good chances the child will develop into a reasoning individual who can make a valuable contribution to society. However, to achieve this goal, especially in the digital age, technology is a tool to embrace.

A Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) survey conducted in 2013 showed that seven out of ten teachers in the United States believed that technology assisted in their students’ education.   More recently, McGraw-Hill Education released the findings of its 2016 Digital Study Trends Survey which showed that 81 per cent of college students believed technology was helpful in enhancing their grades.

Given this dominant pro-technology view among teachers and students, what sort of combination can be used to make education better? To use the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup analogy, what would be the perfect mix of chocolate meeting peanut butter to create the impeccable blend in shaping a young mind from an early age?

TVOntario, the Ontario Educational Communications Authority of the government of Ontario, has been wrestling with this question for almost fifty years. Its new answer is simple: create a space where teachers and students meet technology together: TeachOntario.

TeachOntario is an online platform that functions as a social network for teachers that was created by TVOntario (TVO) in partnership with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF), its affiliates, and the Ministry of Education (EDU). TeachOntario draws heavy input from elementary and secondary teachers from a variety of districts across Ontario. Collaboration among the parties began in early 2014 by laying the groundwork to create a social network to support professional development of teachers and to nurture leadership for educators. According to Karen Grose, Vice President of Digital Learning at TVO, it was also to “facilitate the sharing of exemplary practices with others for the broader benefit of Ontario’s students.”

Karen Grose, Vice President of Digital Learning at TVO

TeachOntario is an online platform that functions as a social network for teachers that was created by TVOntario (TVO) in partnership with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF), its affiliates, and the Ministry of Education (EDU). TeachOntario draws heavy input from elementary and secondary teachers from a variety of districts across Ontario. Collaboration among the parties began in early 2014 by laying the groundwork to create a social network to support professional development of teachers and to nurture leadership for educators. According to Karen Grose, Vice President of Digital Learning at TVO, it was also to “facilitate the sharing of exemplary practices with others for the broader benefit of Ontario’s students.”

Grose sees TeachOntario as providing three key spaces which are vital for the successful operation of the network: Explore, Share and Create.

Explore is a generally accessible on-line space that works as a hub for blogs, eBooks, webinars, courses, self-directed learning modules and online book clubs as part of its Professional Learning Opportunities subsection. Explore also houses curated resources from the Ministry of Education, blogs from teachers, research and digital resources to support parents as partners in learning.

Share and Create are spaces that are only available to educators in Ontario. As part of the Share platform, there are over 200 educator-initiated groups like Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK), 21st Century Learning and Teaching, Inquiry-Based Learning, Digital Literacy in the Classroom, Blogging, Mathematics Instructional Strategies for Student Success that are sharing knowledge and resources to enhance teaching and learning. While Create, on the other hand, is a space dedicated to collaborative and participatory online project development in both formal and informal settings.

It took two years of discussions consisting of conceptual design, prototypes, numerous face-to-face and online teacher focus groups meetings to shape TeachOntario. Since its launch in March 2016, the community has grown to over 7,500 registered user-educators from across the province from all 72 districts including the English Public, English Catholic and French Language sectors. Teachers are thus shaping TeachOntario, says Grose, to “serve educators with dynamic content and professional learning opportunities.”

The intensity of use is a good measure of the program’s success. An example of this comes from Vicky Walker, a teacher at Superior Collegiate High School in Thunder Bay. This educator, according to Grose, is a long-time fan of the Kingston (Ontario) rock band The Tragically Hip.

Walker “decided to use the band’s lyrics to teach Canadian history.” Walker worked with her students to create paintings, rap music, a website and analogies to showcase what the Tragically Hip means to the Canadian identity. Her story was shared on the TeachOntario platform to serve as a motivation to other teachers to collaborate with their students in fresh ways to bring technology into the education mix.

As with any new program though, TeachOntario had its share of challenges. “We knew that to build the platform it would take an intentional balance of research regarding effective constructivist online design, and the requirements teachers identified as most conducive to an online environment where they could authentically ‘learn out loud’ together. This required an intentional strategic approach that included collaboration, thought and time,” Grose added. During the early stages, it became apparent that someone needs to act as the central point to connect everyone together and be proactive in building the culture and technical aspects of the program. A community manager was identified for such a role and was provided by TVO.

Through the hard work of key stakeholders in the Ontario’s educational community, principal partnerships and educators, TeachOntario has become a centre for teachers to collaborate with colleagues and build a mentorship across Ontario. This program has provided the means for educators to be challenged, according to Grose, “to stretch their thinking, access new ideas and perspectives, and co-develop richer, more collaborative approaches to foster the well-being and growth of our students.”

The leadership role of this new social network where Ontario educators have a “one-stop shop for 21st-century knowledge exchange and professional development” didn’t go unnoticed. TeachOntario was awarded the Platinum 2015 Deloitte IPAC Public Sector Leadership Award for demonstrating “outstanding leadership by taking bold steps to improve Canada through advancements in public administration and management” in 2016.

“This win is no small feat,” Lisa de Wilde, CEO of TVOntario wrote in a blog post the day after the award ceremony. “TeachOntario rose to the top from 100 nominations submitted by a variety of other public organizations across Canada. Most importantly, the award is a testament to the dedication of Ontario’s teachers who are working together to make classroom learning even better. This is a win for Ontario’s teachers.”

But this is not the end, according to Grose. Instead, it is a really exciting time for the organization as it is in the process of creating mPower, a fun and innovative online game-based resource that builds problem-solving, critical thinking and math skills for learners in Kindergarten to Grade 6. “As the popularity of online gaming among young Canadians continues to grow, it is a natural fit to leverage digital game-based learning to tap into kids’ innate love of games so that learning math is fun,” says Grose. On the professional learning series side, TeachOntario is working to broaden that knowledge centre and feature exemplary and innovative teaching and learning practices.

About this author

Marcello Sukhdeo

Marcello Sukhdeo

Marcello is responsible for content strategy for Canadian Government Executive, IT in Canada Online and WRLWND and also is the host of WRLWND Radio. An avid technology enthusiast, he has worked on content leadership strategies for a number of industries including the public sector, life science, technology and defence.

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